Farrah, a six-year-old German Shepherd mix, was brought to the Francisvale Home for Smaller Animals in March of 2012 as a stray. She was named after Ms. Fawcett for her charming good looks.
While at the shelter, Farrah exhibited repeated behaviors such as barking, jumping, spinning, and tail biting, making her an excellent candidate for a new partnership between Francisvale and the Animal Behavior Service at Penn Vet’s Ryan Hospital.
Through a special internship at the shelter, Penn Vet’s Dr. M. Leanne Lilly assesses and treats animal residents with behavioral problems. She provides individual behavior case management, which may include behavior modification, environmental modification, and medication, if necessary.
The goal is to provide quality care for the animals and maximize their adoptability into forever homes. As an added benefit, Penn Vet provides support to adopters by offering three months of post-adoption behavioral counseling.
When Farrah arrived at Francisvale, she had a tumor on the cornea of her right eye. During her evaluation, she exhibited unusual behavior in the presence of bright lights. Farrah eventually had her eye removed. Thankfully, the tumor was determined to be benign. But Farrah’s sensitivity to light continued.
When Lilly first met Farrah, she was informed that bright lights, moving reflections, and cell phone flashlights would send her into a frenzy of behaviors: barking, jumping, spinning, and biting her own tail. Other triggers included the sound of a dish touching the counter or kibble hitting a dish.
“We suspected that, due to the stress of her corneal tumor, Farrah was sensitive to the stimuli of bright moving lights or ‘sparklies,’ as we’ve taken to calling them,” said Lilly.
These reactions are classified as displacement behaviors: repeated patterned behaviors that do not make sense in their contexts, but function as an outlet for stress, frustration, or conflict. Farrah’s series of barking, jumping, spinning, and tail biting may be related to anticipation of receiving food when she hears the sound of kibble hitting metal dishes. However, much like biting your nails in a doctor’s office in anticipation of bad news, this behavior does not function to change the outcome of the situation. It merely provides an escape valve for the underlying emotion.
“Because Farrah’s displacement behaviors have specific, consistent triggers or antecedents, her prognosis for management is good,” said Lilly.
The logical first step was to move Farrah out of the kitchen, where she had chosen to reside after surgery. But Farrah refused to go into other rooms. An attempt to temporarily relocate her to an office during meal preparation went well, until she refused to leave the room for her evening walk.
Since Lilly was unable to avoid all of Farrah’s triggers in the confines of her kitchen environment, she sought to make the stimuli less salient, and minimize the ones she could through environmental and behavioral modification.
Contact paper was placed on Farrah’s kitchen window to eliminate "sparklies" but maintain light in the kitchen. She was switched to Royal Canin Satiety Support food, which she began receiving in semi-frozen Kongs and puzzle toys. Farrah received these before meal preparation began. This served several functions:
- She was rewarded for doing something incompatible with her displacement behaviors.
- Her overall arousal was diminished by minimizing frustration in waiting for food, and by providing her a greater sense of satiety.
Satiety is the sense of being full and having consumed sufficient nutrients. Satiety is signaled via neural pathways regarding stomach stretch, the sensation of nutrients entering the intestines, and the presence of glucose in the liver and hormones. Unfortunately, the sense of satiety is not as rapid as other sensations—we’ve all eaten that second helping and then regretted it five to ten minutes later, because it can take ten to fifteen minutes after eating a meal for the full range of effects to reach the brain.
Satiety levels are set by intake patterns established early in life. In dogs like Farrah who were over-conditioned, these levels can be set inappropriately high.
“When these dogs are placed on a diet, they may become chronically stressed from feeling constantly hungry. Stress decreases the threshold, or level of a stimulus needed to react,” explained Lilly.
Farrah also had a peculiar habit of “flopping” onto her side during walks and refusing to go farther in an apparently random fashion. She was not particularly sensitive to weather; though shifts from very bright light to very dark light may give her pause. A little bit of record keeping revealed a fairly clear pattern after a few weeks: Farrah would attempt to return to the house near expected mealtimes, but in the mid-morning hours between breakfast and meal prep, she would saunter around the property for 45 minutes to an hour.
During her sessions with Lilly, Farrah learned how to make eye contact on cue with a person speaking – a task at which she excelled, despite her single eye. Farrah was also taught to touch her nose to an offered palm on cue. These positive reinforcement requests can be used to move her from brightly lit areas to shadows or to interrupt an aroused behavior pattern.
Lilly and fourth-year Penn Vet students filmed Farrah’s entire routine in September after nearly two months of management, and were unable to elicit more than a few barks and a single spin – even in the presence of cell phone flashlights, kibble distribution, and metal dishes banging on the counter before meal time.
Farrah is still being managed. Like most behaviors, they cannot be cured. But Lilly has high hopes.
“In a home setting, Farrah would never have to endure the lengthy meal preparation required for the multitude of animals present at Francisvale,” said Lilly. “Farrah is unlikely to need a high level of management after adoption, which is a big win. Now we just want her to find a forever home.”
View Farrah’s adoption page here.
A Unique Collaboration
Francisvale, located in Radnor, PA, is one of the oldest no-kill shelters in the U.S., providing a temporary home for rescued, unwanted, and abandoned dogs and cats. The goal of the shelter is to place animals in homes for life, offering individuals and families the love and companionship of a healthy, carefully matched pet.
In addition to providing behavior case management for Francisvale, Lilly is establishing a training program for shelter staff and volunteers. Seminars are held on a variety of topics, including common cues for behavior modification, safe handling, and positive reinforcement. Dr. Carlo Siracusa, Director of the Animal Behavior Service at Penn Vet, also leads educational seminars on dog body language and stress and fear recognition.
“As a no-kill shelter, Francisvale is home to many dogs and cats that have lived in the facility for several years, like Farrah. This unique collaboration will enhance the welfare of these long-term residents, improve their behavior, and strengthen the training of staff and volunteers,” said Siracusa. “The ultimate goal, of course, is to help animals find their forever homes.”
Lilly is currently managing 14 canine cases on a range of issues including dog reactivity, harness fear, and confinement anxiety. One of the dogs that Lilly worked with has been adopted and two others have adoptions pending. Francisvale is also home to 40-60 cats at any given time, and Lilly helps manage behavior in the catteries.
“This partnership presents an extraordinary opportunity to further enrich the lives of the dogs and cats that presently reside at Francisvale and of those who may find themselves at our doors,” said Dorothy Claeys, Executive Director of the Francisvale Home for Smaller Animals. “The collaboration will also provide an incredible educational opportunity for our staff and volunteers who will be working with and learning from the Penn Vet team. It’s truly a win-win for all involved.”